When Karen Kwak was tapped as EVP/Head of A&R at Warner Records by Co-Chair/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck, it was shortly after she swore she’d never take another label gig. The A&R hitter began her career at Motown, served at Arista and Island Def Jam and worked at the UMG corporate mothership prior to launching her own KK Consulting. Then Warner came calling, and the opportunity to help shape the department at the revamped Bunny proved irresistible. Kwak’s playfully self-deprecating demeanor conceals an extremely diverse skillset—she deals with logistical nuts and bolts and artist whispering with equal aplomb in pursuit of her ideal of the A&R exec as “creative concierge.”

From the get-go, the sharp, feisty L.A. native was a sponge for knowledge, and she soaked it up every step of the way, starting at Motown, where she worked under Chairman Clarence Avant and label heads Jheryl Busby and Andre Harrell, the latter of whom moved the company to New York. But Kwak’s burgeoning career took a pivotal turn when she accepted L.A. Reid’s offer to work for him at LaFace in Atlanta. She had a far different kind of learning experience just minutes after she got off the plane at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“As I’m walking through the airport, they’re calling me ‘Miss Lee,’ ‘Miss Kim,’ and I’m going, Fuck off, you country bumpkin,” she remembers ruefully. “I was going back to New York every weekend; as much as I loved the music, I didn’t feel connected to the place. I wanted to go back to New York. Arista was our partner, so I dealt with them a lot and I was going to go for an A&R admin job there. But L.A. said, ‘Just sit tight.’

“So he makes the move and is running Arista, but I’m still not in a creative role. I become his right hand, running the department and managing the A&R team. I was also responsible for all of his music, for presentations and so on. I introduced him to the iPod, because I was like a pack mule going to meetings carrying huge backpacks with two CDs of everything.

“I can’t tell you how much I learned from working so closely with him. Being his music person is when I really made the connection. This is when I got to take all the knowledge I had and my whole pushy, let’s-get-it-done thing and segue to the creative side, mostly as his right hand. He liked to ask people their opinions, and mine were pure in the sense that I’m not a musician and could say I like it, I don’t like it, this is too loud, whatever. He taught me. He took me everywhere—studios, showcases, artist meetings, corporate meetings. And because I lived in the city and didn’t go home to Jersey or Connecticut or wherever, I could go anywhere at any time.

“ L.A. and I had a chemistry that worked; we would organize and sequence our presentations the night before they were due. He would smoke cigars. Island Def Jam is where I really started to help him in that way. It was working with Mariah Carey and her in-house team that was really my transition to creative.

“I had worked with Tricky Stewart and his brother, Mark, on an artist named Blu Cantrell at Arista. We reconnected years later, and Mark emailed me an MP3 of a song called “Umbrella,” asking for thoughts. I kinda left it alone for a few days; and my assistant used to take all the music that I had to keep up with and put it on a CD for the weekend. I’m not that talented—I’m just a fan of music and a little bit of a groupie. And it wasn’t until I listened to it outside of the office space that I was, like, holy shit. I call Tricky and tell him, ‘Give me the record.’ He asks me for who and I tell him Rihanna. Remember, she’s kinda new. I bet him two Birkin bags it would be big for her. So I go to play it for L.A.

“Now, there’s an art to when you play somebody a song, right? If you’ve got drama going on, you cannot hear a record. Rihanna’s team had the song for a bit, and then I saw her, with the team, and she put a finger in my chest, looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I want that record.’ Tricky wants to give the record to Mary J. Blige, who’d just had a ginormous chart debut and had all these Grammy nominations. And at the time everybody wants to be in business with Jimmy Iovine. But Rihanna saying she wanted it put me in crazy mode, so I call and call and call, just stalking them. I wore them down, and they said OK. I have no shame in my game at this point.

“Then we signed The-Dream and brought in Tricky and Dream as an in-house team, and they were just the gas pump of hits. They were making records for everybody.

“And now I’m getting my feet wet in A&R. And where I feel I was really able to help was in identifying A&R executives. I brought in Ray Romulus as an assistant; he’s now one of The Stereotypes. I brought in Bu [Abou Thiam], Akon’s brother, who’s now advising Kanye; he brought in the Jeremih deal. Now things are moving at the label; Justin Bieber gets signed. I’m doing more A&R, still running the department, still being L.A.’s right hand. It was a lot, but it was exciting.”

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